(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On January 12, 1949, Margaret Allen was executed by Albert Pierrepoint at Strangeways Gaol. She was the first woman hanged there since Charlotte Bryant in 1936.
41-year-old Margaret had beaten to death an elderly neighbor, Nancy Ellen Chadwick, on August 21, 1948, after Nancy stopped by Margaret’s cottage at 137 Bacup Road, Rawtenstall, Lancashire. Several hours later, she dragged the body outside and left it in the road, almost literally right on her doorstep.
The following facts can be gleaned about Margaret Allen’s life:
- Since her early twenties, she had habitually worn men’s clothing and said she wanted to be a man.
- She wanted everyone to call her “Bill.”
- She wore her hair in a short, slicked-back cut, a common style for men at the time.
- She once went on holiday to Blackpool with her best (and perhaps only) friend, Annie Cook, and they checked into a boarding house under the names “Mr. Allen” and “Mrs. Allen.”
- In 1935, after a stay in St. Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, Margaret told people she’d had a sex change operation and was now a man.*
All of it adds up to this: although few even knew it was a thing in the 1940s, it seems highly likely that if Margaret was alive today, she would have identified as a transgender man and pursued treatment, such as hormonal therapy, to change her sex.
But in 1948, such options weren’t available to Margaret. She felt like a man, dressed like one and cut her hair like one, and even adopted a man’s name. But in spite of all her efforts she didn’t really look like a man, and the local townspeople didn’t think of her as one. “Bill” Allen must have been the subject of curiosity and gossip in the small town of Rawtenstall.
As with most transgender individuals even today, Margaret’s life was difficult. She had an elementary education, had never married, and worked grueling jobs her entire life, such as in the mills and in the postal service.
Alan Hayhurst, in his book More Lancashire Murders, suggests that the four years she was a bus conductor may have been the happiest period in her life, since female employees wore slacks as part of their uniform. She was ultimately dismissed from that job for being “rude and aggressive” towards passengers.
By 1948, Margaret’s parents were dead, and she was estranged from all twenty-one of her siblings. It’s likely they were put off by her inclination to be a man.
Due to ill health, Margaret hadn’t worked since January 1948. She was living on 11 shillings a week in welfare and 26 shillings a week in National Health sick pay.
She was behind in her rent to the tune of £15, and her landlord had been threatening eviction. She hadn’t paid the electricity or coal bills in almost two years, and she had several court judgments pending against her besides. All told, she was £46 in debt and had no realistic hope of ever paying it off.
On top of everything else, Margaret was going through menopause — often a difficult time in any woman’s life, never mind a transgender one’s — and suffered frequent headaches, dizzy spells and depression as a result. Her friend Annie Cook was worried about her; she smoked too much and didn’t eat properly. She begged Margaret to pull herself together.
Enter Nancy Ellen Chadwick.
Nancy was housekeeper to a Mr. Whitaker, and lived on Hardman Avenue, about half a mile from Margaret’s home. She and Margaret first met at a mutual acquaintance’s house, then a week later on the street in the center of town. Nancy mentioned that she was out of sugar, and Margaret offered to lend her a cupful. This was generous: Britain was still laboring under postwar rationing, and sugar was rare and precious.
Margaret visited Nancy’s home a few times after that, although she did not bring the sugar. She visited her again at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, August 21, and said she would have sugar on Monday.
“Nancy Chadwick,” Hayhurst says in his book, “was getting more and more curious about the little woman in men’s clothing.”
At about 9:30 that same morning, by accident or design, Nancy appeared on Bacup Road, saw Margaret and asked to be invited inside her home. Hayhurst describes their fatal encounter:
‘I’m afraid I haven’t got time, Nancy,’ she said, ‘you can see inside another time.’ But she found herself being pushed back into the scullery as Nancy Chadwick made a determined effort to gain entrance. Margaret still protested, but Nancy now had the bit between her teeth and was shutting the front door behind her and making for the living room.
At around 4:00 a.m. the next day, a bus driver traveling along Bacup Road stopped when he saw, illuminated in his headlights, what looked like a bundle of rags lying in the road. When he got out to take a closer look he realized it was a woman’s body.
When the doctor arrived, he determined the woman had been dead at least ten hours. There was a deep gash in her head and blood on her arms and hands, but her injuries were not consistent with a hit-and-run accident.
Two witnesses who had been walking home later told the police they’d walked past that spot at 3:45 a.m. and there was nothing there, indicating the body had been dumped sometime between 3:45 and 4:00.
Nancy Chadwick’s nephew identified the body. At the postmortem, Hayhurst records,
Dr. Bailey found that the vault of the skull was fractured in several directions over almost the whole of the skull, and there were seven incised wounds to the head, each just over 1 inch long. The cause of death was shock, produced by multiple fractures to the skull and hemorrhaging of the scalp wounds. It was apparent that Nancy Chadwick had suffered a frenzied attack with a heavy implement.
An obvious motive for the murder was robbery, for “it was common gossip in the town that Mrs. Chadwick had lots of money and was suspected of carrying it round with her.”
The police searched the nearby River Irwell for evidence. They didn’t find the murder weapon, but did find Nancy Chadwick’s handbag. Inside were some sewing materials, scissors, and a pack of playing cards, but no money at all.
Authorities also began a house-to-house search of Bacup Road, interviewing all the residents. Because there was a large drag mark leading from No. 137 to where the body lay, they paid particular attention to Margaret Allen. A look into her background would have revealed her financial problems.
At first they could find nothing suspicious inside No. 137. Margaret was taken to the police station and gave a statement, admitting she knew Nancy. Nancy had been to see her on the day she died, Margaret said, but she had refused to let her in. The old woman had left, and this was the last time Margaret had seen her alive.
The police smelled a rat. They reappeared the next day and took Margaret back to the station, where she issued a second statement, which did not differ significantly from her first. A second search of Margaret’s home, however, turned up large bloodstains in the coalhouse.
In the living room she said quietly, “I’ll tell you all about it. The other statements I gave you were wrong.” Back at the police station she made her confession:
As I was saying, I was coming out of the house on Saturday last about twenty past nine in the morning, when Mrs. Chadwick came around the corner. She asked if this was where I lived and could she come in. I told her I was going out. I was in a funny mood and she seemed to get on my nerves, although she hadn’t said anything. I said I would have to go, as I was going out and could she see me sometime else, but she seemed somehow to insist on coming in.
I just looked round and saw a hammer in the kitchen. This time we were talking just inside the kitchen with the front door closed. On the spur of the moment, I hit her with the hammer. She gave a shout that seemed to start me off more. I hit her a few times but I don’t know how many. I then pulled the body into my coalhouse. I’ve told you where I was all day, that part is true and true that I went to bed at ten to eleven. When I awoke, the thought of what was downstairs made me keep awake. I went downstairs but couldn’t tell the time as all the clocks are broke. There were no lights in the road and I couldn’t hear any footsteps. My intention was to pull her into the river and dispose of the body but she was too heavy and I just put the body in the road. Later, I heard the noise outside and knew they had found her. I looked out of the window and saw the bus. Then I went back to sleep. Just before I put the body out, I went round the corner and threw the bag into the river. The bag I sort of dropped in, the hammer head I hit her with I threw some distance up the river and the handle I used for the fire. I looked in the bag but there was no money in it. I didn’t actually kill her for that. I had one of my funny turns … I had no reason to do it at all. It seemed to come over me. The noise after the first hit seemed to set me off.
She made her first court appearance on September 2, her forty-second birthday. The Bacup Times website notes she was wearing her preferred masculine outfit of navy blue pants, a checkered shirt, a grayish-blue pullover sweater and a fawn overcoat.
At Margaret’s trial, the defense didn’t bother to pretend she was innocent. How could they, when the evidence was so overwhelming? Her legal aid attorney merely pointed out that she had not committed the murder for financial gain and asked for a verdict of “guilty but insane.”
You can’t just go around beating old ladies in the head with a hammer, of course. But given the stress Margaret was dealing with, and her considerable need for privacy, it would be perhaps understandable if she had panicked and lashed out violently when a near-stranger tried to push her way into her home.
Had the murder happened today, Margaret might have chosen the partial defense of diminished responsibility, which would have given the jury the option of convicting her of manslaughter rather than murder. This defense would have fit the case much better than an insanity plea, but it was not available to her in the 1940s.
Annie Cook, Margaret’s friend (lover?), testified as to Margaret’s “funny turns” and headaches, as well as one prior suicide attempt, but the prison medical officer said he could find no signs of physical or mental disease.
In his summing-up the judge said there was no medical evidence to support an insanity verdict. The outcome was clear, and the jury deliberated only fifteen minutes before convicting her.
Annie visited her until the end, and sent around a petition for a reprieve, but it got a hostile reception and only 112 people signed.
In spite of everything, Margaret remained calm and cheerful. The prison chaplain would later write,
She was a woman with plenty of grit and she faced it as a man would and I felt the whole thing was bestial and brutal. She was well prepared and behaved like a man. In fact she had more guts then most men I have seen.
Margaret wanted to dress in men’s clothing at her hanging, but the prison authorities said no and gave her a blue smock and a frock to wear instead.
Annie inherited her ring and cigarette lighter, as per her wishes.
* Whatever procedure Margaret may have had, it seems unlikely that it was a sex-change operation. That type of surgery was in its infancy in the 1930s, and female-to-male sex reassignment surgery is rare and difficult to perform even today.